Chapman Swifts

Late in September some friends of ours and my family made the trip to see the Vaux's swifts fly in to roost in Chapman Elementary School's old brick chimney in northwest Portland.  Roughly between 1,500 and 10,000 birds gather at dusk each evening, just after the sun sets to all spend the night in one chimney together. As an introvert, the thought of spending a night together with this many souls terrifies me.  Several swarms of these little birds gather and then form what looks to be a funnel cloud as they spiral efficiently to their cozy inn for the night. This nightly migration stopover lasts from mid August to mid October each autumn.

Vaux's Funnel Cloud

I've mentioned previously that Arthur Morris' long exposure photos of birds in flight inspires me.  I find them to be curiously artistic.  The flowing curves can so beautifully convey the motion of the bird's flight.  Even a still frame to be so intriguing when skillfully executed. I had it in my mind to capture the swift's motion individually but also the coordinated motion of the whole lot that appears to spiral into the chimney.

Choosing the right shutter speed for this vision was crucial. Too fast and it would freeze the swifts in flight.  Too slow and each bird would be reduced to a black streak, if even visible at all.  Just right, and the bird's bodies would be fairly sharp, with maybe a little motion blur showing their direction, while their wings would be blurred to show the fast rate of their wings beating. Just the right shutter speed was also required to show the motion of the swift's corporate movement.  Since it appeared to be like a funnel cloud, the blurred motion would show up more in the middle of the spiral, and less at the outsides.  The birds slowed as they reached the chimney's top, and this needed to be shown for the story of the bird's magically coordinated entrance to be told.  In analyzing the evening's photos, 1/13 of a second was pushing the limits of being too slow of a shutter speed, rendering many birds to almost be unseen as soft black streaks in the sky. 1/60 or 1/80 of a second was beginning to get too fast, as the bird's wings began to be captured a little too sharp for my taste.

In addition to choosing the correct shutter speed, many frames had to be taken in order to capture one frame "just right".  With at least one hundred birds in each frame, there were several frames with several birds overlapping that looked less than ideal.  The perfect moment couldn't be decisively selected and shot in that evening at the perfect moment, but rather selected out of what seemed like countless frames later sorted on the computer.  I took 660 frames in total, most of which have now been deleted.  But there are a handful of keepers, my favorite (the slowest shutter speed I captured) of which is at the top of this post. Shown below is a selection of the different shutter speeds to show each shutter speed's different effect in illustrating the swifts flying into the chimney.  Each different shutter speed gives a little different of an artistic look.  Which is your favorite?